The sight of a man with a homemade sandwich board walking through Times Square asking people to sign a petition abolishing Black History Month brings up a particular image. In the puckishly provocative documentary “More Than A Month,” however, that person is not some braying white racist with an ax to grind, but a 29-year-old African American filmmaker named Shukree Hassan Tilghman — with an ax to grind.
The film (part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” documentary series) follows Tilghman’s year-long quest to examine the history and the various underlying issues and controversies surrounding the establishment of February (“the shortest and what seems like the coldest month”) as a 28-day celebration (occasionally 29) of the black experience in America.
Screening on Wednesday at SPACE Gallery and followed by a discussion led by the Portland branch of the NAACP, “More Than A Month” would seem a safe, solidly educational choice leading into Black History Month, were it not for the fact that Tilghman’s journey is bound to ruffle some feathers.
Sure, if you’re making a documentary about a potentially controversial position, leading off with Morgan Freeman expressing support for your side isn’t a bad move. Seen in interview footage on “60 Minutes” calling Black History Month “ridiculous,” Freeman’s recorded appearance sets the tone for the start of the film, as he grills Mike Wallace, asking pointedly, “You’re gonna relegate my history to a month? What do you do with yours?” That sentiment — that the implementation of Black History Month (first created as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and expanded to a month as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976) has actually had a detrimental effect on America’s consciousness — is where Tilghman starts out. Donning that sign and even barging into the organization behind Black History Month in order to ambush its head, the filmmaker’s style at the outset partakes of the same sort of humorously uncomfortable tactics of shows like “The Colbert Report” or “The Daily Show” (both of which are represented by clips of their hosts mocking the commercialization of the month).
Honestly, at first, Tilghman’s approach comes across as a bit glib. The executive who agrees to talk to him accuses Tilghman of taking a superficial tack, and he’s got a point.
But as the film progresses, the amiable and thoughtful filmmaker adapts his style to the insights he gains from speaking to scholars, historians and activists, all of whom impress their often contradictory feelings about the event. Does setting aside one month to take note of the history of black people in America marginalize the complexity of the African American experience? Yes. Is the month a necessary annual milestone redressing the way that experience has itself been marginalized by “mainstream” history? Sure (as evinced by the film’s interviews with advocates for a “Confederate History Month” and examination of current textbooks that refer to slaves as “helpers” in the pre-Civil War economy). Is the reality a seemingly insoluble combination of both? Naturally.
But, as Tilghman delves deeper, it’s the conversation itself that forms the film’s message that, while the African American experience in this country is too central and important to be relegated to a too-easily compartmentalized footnote, a dedicated celebration of that history is still deeply necessary. “More That A Month” is an entertainingly thoughtful, surprisingly funny and ultimately hopeful expression of the need to keep the conversation about black history alive.
“More Than A Month” screens at SPACE Gallery (space538.org) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and is free to the public. The screening will be followed by a discussion led by the King Fellows of the Portland chapter of the NAACP.